Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fabolous' Complex Career and the Ghost of Unfulfilled Potential

Mike Coppola, Getty Images

If you were to let the numbers tell it, Fabolous is one of the most successful artists of his era. Coming out of Brooklyn’s Brevoort Projects, Fab caught his big break after dropping rewind-worthy bars during a freestlyle on DJ Clue’s radio show on New York radio station Hot 97 in 1998.

Impressed by the glowing performance, the legendary DJ took the rapper under his wing, making him the flagship artist of Clue’s Desert Storm imprint. He immediately gave his protege burn via two appearances on his 1998 debut compilation album, ‘The Professional,’ released via Roc-A-Fella Records, which planted the seeds for what would grow to be a considerable buzz for Fab. When the second installment of ‘The Professional’ landed, Fabolous was again featured, this time on the bruising cut, ‘Fantastic 4 Pt. 2.’

Securing distribution for Desert Storm through Elektra Records, the stage was finally set for Fabolous’ debut album, ‘Ghetto Fabulous.’ The album’s lead single, ‘Can’t Deny It’ featuring the late OG crooner Nate Dogg, was released in summer of 2001, and slowly shot up the charts, increasing anticipation for his debut.

Watch Fabolous’ ‘Can’t Deny It’ Feat. Nate Dogg

Produced by Rick Rock, ‘Can’t Deny It’ was as clever, albeit subtle, a musical marketing move as any of us could think of. By implementing Nate Dogg’s melodic G-Funk sensibilities into the mix and adding his witty lyricism and ghetto charm, Fab was able to both cater to his East Coast loyalists while ingratiating himself to the West Coast at the same time. This provided him with the opportunity to receive love in multiple markets, which is one of the keys to achieving commercial success.

And success is just what Fabolous and crew saw when his debut album, ‘Ghetto Fabolous,’ was released on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite stiff competition from the likes of Jay Z, not to mention the tragedy that was 9/11, the album performed quite well on the Billboard charts, debuting at No. 4 and selling a respectable 143,180 units in its first week of release.

The album catapulted Fab into stardom, eventually going platinum and making the “kid with the chipped tooth” one of the game’s most promising artists. Following up ‘Ghetto Fabolous’ with his sophomore album, ‘Street Dreams,’ the rapper struck pay-dirt again, adding another platinum plaque to his resume and continuing to display his knack for hit-making with smash singles, ‘Can’t Let You Go’ and ‘Into You.’ Deciding to double-up in 2003, he released ‘More Street Dreams, Pt. 2: The Mixtape’ in November of that same year, which spawned a marginal hit in the Mike Shorey collaboration, ‘Make You Mine.’

Watch Fabolous’ ‘Think Y’all Know/Make U Mine’ Video

But around the same time, something epic occurred that shook up the rap world — the New York City rap scene in particular. Jay Z made the announcement that the ‘Black Album’ would be the rapper’s last body of work. After a dominating run, the undisputed King of New York — and rap for that matter — was leaving the throne empty for the taking.

Being a Brooklyn native himself and possessing the lyrical chops and charismatic charm of predecessors such as Kane, the Notorious B.I.G., and Hov, Fabolous was one of the first artists that critics and fans looked to as the rapper to carry on Brooklyn’s long-running tradition of MC’s holding the crown. Platinum plaques, endorsement deals and hit singles were all constants with Loso and he had built a reputation as one of the more bankable young stars in rap. However, all of the talk surrounding him wasn’t all positive.

To some, Fabolous had become a bit soft musically. He neglected serving the streets that had initially championed him to instead chase commercial aspirations. His penchant for club bangers and lady-friendly musings had brought him much success, but he still hadn’t made the jump from solid rapper to complete MC.

While he was always good for a standout guest appearance and quotables galore, the elite lyricist had yet to release anything close to a classic album and his next project would be an indicator of whether or not Loso truly had the goods to take control of the throne and become the Big Apple’s latest favorite son.

So, when news of Fabolous’ next album, ‘Real Talk,’ was announced, the anticipation and stakes were high. He even acknowledged the whispers in a cover story for The Source,  hinting at a new, Just Blaze-produced record he felt would silence a lot of the naysayers and give the people what they had been asking for.

The record he was referring to was ‘Breathe,’ the first single released off 2004's ‘Real Talk.’ Featuring a piano sample from Supertramp’s ‘Crime of the Century’ and epic drums, the track was fit more for a coliseum than a stereo with its expansive sound and ominous feel. The track was the first song from the MC to truly embody the sound and feel of New York City’s five boroughs and was a big hit on the concrete as well as the charts, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Watch Fabolous’ ‘Breathe’ Video

‘Breathe’ was an undeniable track — arguably an instant classic — and gave fans hope that this would be the album that would earn him major bragging rights. But our dreams were deferred when ‘Real Talk’ finally arrived on Nov. 9, 2004. While letting his guard down on tracks like ‘Can You Hear Me’ and being the first rapper of note to give a then-unknown Young Jeezy some shine on the standout cut, ‘Do the Damn Thang,’ the album ultimately turned out to be more of the same cliche musings we’d come to associate with Fab.

Received with mixed reviews, ‘Real Talk’ was also considered a bit of a disappointment commercially, as it lacked a bona fide smash single in comparison to his previous efforts. Becoming his first album to fall short of platinum certification as well as falling short of immense expectations, when all was said and done, Fab had missed his shot at the crown.

Following beef between Fabolous and Atlantic Records due to what he felt was poor promotion of the album, the label let him out of his contract, virtually trading him for the rights to then-Def Jam artist Musiq Soulchild. The rapper began prepping for his next release, ‘From Nothin’ to Somethin’.’

The 2007 album was a comeback of sorts for the rapper, spawning his most successful hit to date, the Ne-Yo-assisted single ‘Make Me Better,’ which topped the Billboard Hot 100 Rap Tracks chart for 14 weeks straight. ‘From Nothin’ to Somethin’ continued Fab’s streak of gold and platinum plaques, but, for all intents and purposes, was considered “just another Fabolous album” and failed to standout when it came to end-of-year accolades and awards.

Watch Fabolous’ ‘Make Me Better’ Video Feat. Ne-Yo

Heading into his next album, the Brooklyn MC came to his senses and finally decided to give the people what they deserved, dropping 2009's ‘Loso’s Way’ and earning the critical acclaim that had eluded him for so long. Despite being his weakest showing to date in terms of hit singles, the album was acclaimed for its polished sound, cohesiveness and subject matter, all of which were considered weaknesses in the past. Standout tracks like ‘Pachanga,’ ‘Lullaby,’ ‘Money Goes, Honey Stay’ and ‘I Miss My Love’ displayed something that was missing on previous long players from Loso and was regarded by many as his most complete album to date.

What he achieved in terms of artistic credibility, he sacrificed in sales, as ‘Loso’s Way’ was the lowest selling album of Fabolous’ career. Over the next few years, he would release a number of critically-acclaimed mixtapes, with his ‘There Is No Competition’ and ‘The S.O.U.L. Tape’ series, keeping his name hot on the Internet and in the streets, as well as releasing a few hit singles in between, including the Ryan Leslie-produced cut, ‘You Be Killin Em.’

While his ‘TINC’ series showcased his raw lyrical ability and played more like traditional, freestyle-driven tapes of the past, his ‘S.O.U.L. Tape’ series — which he released due to numerous delays of his ‘Loso’s Way 2' album — was crafted more in the mold of an album and resulted in some of the best music of his career.

Powered by soulful production and peppered with notable guest appearances, ‘The S.O.U.L. Tape’ series saw Fab exorcise his album-making demons, largely avoiding chasing radio-play and turn-up numbers and opting to give listeners a closer glimpse into his psyche than ever before. Standing in place of an official album, these projects kept him in the mix with fans dating back to his Fabolous Sport days, as well as ingratiating himself in the playlists of the younger fans more familiar with blogs and Datpiff than Tower Records and DJ Clue mixtapes. The highly popular ‘The S.O.U.L. Tape 3' officially made Fab a part of the conversation again in 2013, right next to the current stars of today, like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and other younger artists.

With his buzz steady, in August of 2014, he announced that his next Def Jam release would now be titled ‘The Young OG Project.’ Released in December of last year, the project saw Fab revert back to his old ways with a number of uninspired, run-of-the-mill tracks and chasing trends. Infamous for his affinity for Twitter, the rapper went as far as naming songs in association with hot topics and slang used on the social media site, most notably ‘Lituation’ and ‘Cinnamon Apple.’

Watch Fabolous’ ‘Lituation’ Video

Songs like those seem beneath a veteran of his caliber — one in the game for the better part of two decades — which stand as yet another testament to his unfulfilled potential. Fab is falling far from the class of New York City rap titans that etched their names in the history books via classic albums. While he does have a history of commercial success on par with many of the city’s biggest stars, his lack of a bona fide classic LP or timeless, deep album cuts could cause rap fans to stop arguing over his ranking amongst the G.O.A.T.s.

With his 40th birthday around the corner, he lacks definitive moments of greatness, whether it be a memorable battle, being included in the conversation as a top five lyricist at any point in his career or various other intangibles that would bolster his legacy. He can be considered this generation’s version of LL Cool J when it comes to consistently moving with the times and maintaining his relevance, but that’s not enough.

Fabolous is sure to churn out a few more quality releases and be a hot topic while doing so, but 10 years after he decides to hang up the mic, what will he be remembered for? Being a legendary mixtape rapper? The dude that dropped dope rap&B records with Lil’ Mo in the 2000s? There’s a thin line between being great and being a legend and we’re not quite sure if Fabolous fits the bill of the latter in this juncture.

The ghost of unfulfilled potential is a haunting one. It clings to the legacy of many, from the Average Joe to some of the world’s most talented artists. That black cloud of what-ifs and should’ves or could’ves can alter how one’s place in the annals of history will be perceived, for better or worse. Only time will tell, but hopefully the Young OG doesn’t end up being remembered as the old man in the club, reliving his glory days and competing for attention with kids nearly half his age. Now that would be a shame.

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